PARIS (Reuters) - French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who has stood out in an otherwise unpopular government for his firm handling of international crises, is to take on responsibility for improving the country's weak trade performance, diplomatic sources said.
In a cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday, Fabius has been handed the task of reducing the trade deficit and developing external business as part of an expanded portfolio to boost growth opportunities overseas, the sources told Reuters.
While President Francois Hollande's ratings are near rock bottom, Fabius has built up his gravitas with France taking a leading role in crises from Mali to Syria. Now he has won the greater economic role for his ministry that he had coveted.
"The foreign ministry is the crisis ministry. There's an economic crisis, a trade deficit crisis and that needs to be resolved," said an official familiar with the situation. "It's logical. Economic diplomacy has been his priority."
Fabius, 67, is the most experienced minister in Hollande's new Socialist government, having become the youngest French prime minister of the modern era at the age of 37 in 1984.
Since becoming foreign minister in 2012 he has tried to shift more diplomatic focus towards winning contracts in markets where French firms are traditionally weak. This brought him into conflict with the finance and trade ministries which often duplicated his visits.
Fabius's new remit means he could be in charge of defending French interests in negotiations with Washington over a high-stakes free-trade between agreement between the United States and the European Union.
France's trade deficit, which hit a record of 74 billion euros (61.33 billion pounds) in 2011 has fallen to about 61 billion euros but remains one of the starkest signs of French firms' loss of competitiveness on international markets.
Hollande offered in December to phase out 30 billion euros in charges on companies by 2017 to help them regain lost market share, marking a shift in policy in the euro zone's second largest economy.
Paris has said that a strong euro weighs on its exports, which are driven by sales of Airbus planes, pharmaceuticals, and farm and food products, by making them less competitive against rivals using weaker currencies.
A government source said Fleur Pellerin, who had done well in her previous post as digital economy minister, would report to Fabius as trade, tourism and European affairs minister.
Fabius has had a rivalry with Hollande, whom he once nicknamed "wild strawberry" for hiding in the undergrowth, but has stayed clear of gaffes and quarrels that engulfed the outgoing government.
In doing so, Fabius has quietly increased his influence within the government. He nominated ambassadors to develop business interests ranging from former conservative Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin in Algeria to Socialist heavyweight Martine Aubry for China.
Fabius has set his sights on breaking former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's record of circling the world 38 times during her 2009-2013 tenure. In almost two years, he has managed more than 18, visiting China seven times.
He has also targeted markets relatively untapped by French firms ranging from Mongolia to Kazakhstan and Panama. He is due to travel to Cuba and Latin America before the summer.
As well as trade, Fabius will also take control of tourism where he has already made it easier for visitors from rapidly growing new markets. "Fabius managed to get visa issuance times reduced to just two days for the Chinese, knowing that even a fraction more Chinese visitors to France would significantly boost the coffers," said the official. ($1 = 0.7249 Euros)
(Additional reporting by Gregory Blachier; editing by David Stamp)